The gel is the first pH neutral material made from combinations of dipeptides (pairs of amino acids) to provide an environment in which cells can be cultured under physiological conditions.
Uniquely, the gel mimics the properties of cell scaffolds which naturally occur in the body and has potential applications for wound healing and tissue engineering.
Cell scaffolds, known as the extra cellular matrix (ECM), are naturally produced by the body to grow new cells in order to repair damaged tissue. Like the ECM, the gel acts like a scaffold in which cells can grow.
In their paper, 'Nanostructured Hydrogels for Three-Dimensional Cell Culture Through Self-Assembly of Fluorenylmethoxycarbonyl-Dipeptides', Dr Rein Ulijn and collaborators describe how the gel is created through a process of self-assembly.
Dr Ulijn said: "We have used combinations of modified dipeptides which act like building blocks and spontaneously assemble into nanometer sized fibres when exposed to physiological conditions, to create a fibrous gel-like structure in which cells can be cultured. Because thismaterial is made up of 99% water and is pH neutral, it is compatible with biological systems.
"By using dipeptide building blocks instead of much larger oligo-peptides used by other researchers, we have greater control over the fibrous architecture and the physical properties of the gels. These materials offer us great potential for future applications in wound healing and regenerative medicine."
Dr Ulijn and his collaborators have successfully cultured cartilage cells using the gel. They found that both the properties of the gels formed and the cell response to the gels could be controlled by using different combinations of di-peptides. The team recently received a £630k award from EPSRC to develop the gels further.